Take it from Tony Horton himself, “Sucking at something every once in a while is how you achieve greatness in the long run.” Perfection is unsustainable. And it’s just no way to live. And the same can be said for dieting. That’s why you might wonder, “Do cheat days work?” It’s hard to be strict with your calories, day in and day out. Super strict diets are just no way to eat.
Food is an important aspect of enjoying life. Not only can it sustain you, but it can also bring family and friends together, and connect you to your favorite memories. Eliminating your favorite foods forever in the name of fitness or weight loss is just not the way to stay fit.
So here’s a trick: Try to incorporate cheat meals into your diet. That’s right. This article is telling you to cheat. But cheat smart. What is a cheat meal? Can you take a whole day off and cheat at breakfast, lunch, and dinner? And the biggest question of all…
Do cheat days work? Learn more about full cheat days vs one cheat meal and how effective each can be for those who want to achieve long term fitness goals.
What Is A Cheat Day? How Does It Work And Why Are They Believed To Be Effective?
Sticking to your strict diet day in and day out is nearly impossible. Temptation is everywhere and its human nature to get bored by repetition. Variety is the spice of life, right? One of the toughest games your mind might play on you if you cheat is telling you, “Well, you failed. You tanked your efforts. There’s no getting back to your healthy routine now.”
The result of that kind of negative self-talk is sinking deeper into a pit of temptation. You just cave because it becomes easier to throw your hands up and resign to your bad habits. But if you load your plate with unhealthy food each day, you can undermine your hard work. So, what’s a fitness buff, dieter, or healthy eater to do?
Don’t avoid temptation. That’s right! Allow it. If you set aside a meal a week, or a day a month — you’ll find what works best for you — you could actually support big-picture success. Several nutritionists and health experts are saying if you make room for a cheat day or cheat meal, it could benefit you.1
Do Cheat Days Work? Is There Actual Research on Cheat Days and Cheat Meals?
What exactly is a cheat meal or a cheat day and will they work? Well, to answer that there needs to be at least a loose understanding of what a cheat day is, Whether it’s a cheat meal or a cheat day you’re considering, the bottom line is: You’re choosing a pre-planned period of time during which you’ll stray from your diet.
Why is this different from binge eating? Well, with binge eating you lose control. You start to go off the rails because you’ve pushed yourself to such a limit in your weight loss or fat loss efforts that, essentially, you push yourself too far.
But, if you schedule a short break from your healthy eating plan, or take a break from low calorie intake, you can control the boundaries around your cheat. For the sake of example, consider this notion: You let yourself cheat for one meal.
So, you say… okay, for 3 hours — from 4:30 pm — 7:30 pm, all bets are off. Set a timer. When 7:30 hits… that’s the end. You put the chocolate chip ice cream back in the freezer. You hide the licorice at the back of the pantry. Or better yet, cheat with indulgent whole foods. But you get the point. Tell your favorite junk food you’ll see it again in 7 or 14 days.
When you control the boundaries of a cheat, it won’t go on too long and start to thwart your overall effort. Plus, you know that next Friday at 4:30 pm you’ll get to get to gorge again — and if you know you’ll exceed your daily calories in 4 days, it might be a little bit easier to not cheat today.
Cheat days are different for everyone. Maybe it’s the day you don’t count calories or maybe it’s a day you allow yourself to add cheese to your salad. Perhaps you have a muffin in the morning instead of an egg-white omelet. Whatever your cheat, it’s the moment in which you plan to do it.
And, yes, there is actual research on cheating…
Research On How Cheat Days May Help Regulate Your Appetite Hormones
There are two major hormones that play a part in how often you get hungry and how much you want to eat when hunger strikes. These hormones are called leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is the hormone that subdues your hunger, while the other hormone — ghrelin — activates it.2,3
Recent studies show that changes in your ghrelin levels or leptin levels within a period of 1 — 3 days can help you stick to a healthy diet. This is one of the theories behind intermittent fasting, but conversely, if you spike your levels by adding calories in a cheat meal, you might help regulate the hormones — and stave off hunger or control your appetite a little longer.4
One study presents the following information: leptin production can increase by up to 30% for one whole day after you consume a cheat meal of carbohydrates. So the idea is that if you add cheat meals to your diet and up your calorie intake temporarily, then you can keep hunger at bay longer and refrain from eating longer.5
How Much Is Too Much? Should You Go For A Full Cheat Day Or Just One Cheat Meal?
Now, if you cheat every day, well then, you’re just cheating. It doesn’t count as a cheat day or cheat meal — and you’ll likely never hit your weight loss goals. Cheat meals really only work for those who are on a strict diet plan or an intense workout regimen.
A cheat day or cheat meal should be a small break — a pressure release if you will — before returning to your healthy diet. You also want to take into account that prolonged calorie deficits can be hard on your psyche. So, the duration of your cheat is meant to be a reset for your brain.
It can get a little harder to jump back into your strict diet plan if you cheat for too long. So, opt for one cheat meal a week or one cheat day every 3 weeks. Find the balance that’s right for you. It may help to ask yourself… “What will motivate me to stay on course?”6
Another great way to think about how long to go between cheat meals or cheat days is to consider a 90% diet. That means, 90% of the time, you’re strict with your diet. 10% of the time, you can let loose. It’s a good ratio to consider in terms of succeeding with your diet.
Overall Benefits Of Allowing Yourself A Cheat Meal
In the end, little breaks can actually help you succeed with your fitness goals. Remember Tony Horton’s advice: Sucking at something every so often can actually give you the wherewithal to succeed.
At a cheat meal, you’ll suck at your diet… but only during that meal. Then you’ll have the strength to keep up your good efforts until your next scheduled cheat. Try it out. If you notice you’re putting weight on, cheat a little less. If you’re still on course to meet your goals after a month, you’ll know you’ve found a cheat day plan that works for you.
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